History, in person

I am thinking today of my mom’s great aunt, Maybelle Sivertsen.

Having watched Hilary Clinton accept her nomination last night, and seeing all the posts on Facebook – especially from women – history came to life for me.

Born in 1898, Maybelle was an intelligent, raucous, bawdy, charismatic, charming and always elegant woman of deep faith,who was married to a prominent doctor, but her own life resume was pretty impressive in its own right. Among her many suffragettes2proud accomplishments were being a suffragette, and the work she did in helping women achieve the right to vote.

There is a family photograph from a cousin’s wedding in the mid-70’s. It is in my aunt and uncle’s basement, at the afterparty. Maybelle is seated in a chair in the corner, hands in front of her on the head to the cane she then used. She is sitting up bolt-straight, and is obviously in mid-oration. It is a picture that perfectly captures Maybelle as I knew her, but it is not what makes the fuzzy, Instamatic shot so memorable.

Sitting at her feet – some cross-legged on the linoleum floor, one or two crouching, all in their powder-blue tuxedos, many with long, ‘hippie hair’ – are the groomsmen from the wedding. Their heads are all tilted upwards as they are focused on Maybelle, and a couple of the more visible of the young men’s faces carry looks of awe. I have no idea what she is regaling them about; even in her mid-seventies, she was abreast of all the current issues and had definite opinions about all of them. She was a progressive, all-in for civil rights and equal rights.

Whatever she was saying the rapt attention of those young men. I totally get that.

Maybelle always had time for me; in part because she made time for everyone, in part because, more than most of my immediate family, I loved history and loved hearing (and telling) stories. At about the same time the photo was taken, America had just ratified the 26th Amendment giving eighteen-year-olds the right to vote. I was still a few years shy of eighteen, but Maybelle wanted to make sure I was crystal clear on the importance of that newly-minted right – a right that was obtained a lot more peacefully than was her’s.

From a woman who had personally worked, a half-century before, to get the 19th Amendment ratified, giving her suffragettes1entire gender the right to vote, I heard the gravity in her plea, the hopeful tone. In Maybelle’s eyes, this was a logical progression, just another step, and the right to vote was something I should cherish, and take very seriously.

I still do.

So the morning after watching history unfold on television, I am thinking of my great-aunt Maybelle – the suffragette. Somewhere, she is seated in a chair, sitting elegantly, proudly…her hands clenched firmly atop the head of her cane.

She is beaming.

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